Essays on Beauty: The Fashion Photography of Athol Shmith

Essays on Beauty: The Fashion Photography of Athol Shmith

Curator Susannah Helman looks at Athol Shmith’s fashion photographs

Athol Shmith (1914–1990), Fiona, Baroness Thyssen, c.1960,, © The Estate of Athol Shmith, courtesy Kalli Rolfe Contemporary Art

Melbourne photographer Athol Shmith (1914–1990) worked in fashion, theatre, advertising and on private commission for decades. He was undoubtedly versatile, and well known as a portraitist and wedding photographer. Yet fashion photography—for magazines, department stores and boutiques—was a specialty. Over decades, Shmith captured a world of sartorial elegance from shirt to shift dresses, miniskirts to wet-look boots, in his studio at the ‘Paris end’ of Collins Street, at friends’ houses or outdoors. He was a pioneer in Australian fashion photography at a time when modelling was turning professional in Australia. Fashion historian Margaret Maynard has called his images ‘perhaps the finest of all Australian fashion photographs’.

In 1979, Shmith gave the National Library of Australia a large collection of his prints and negatives, mostly fashion photographs. Some have a relationship to prints in other Australian collections. Others appear to be unique. Our current collections-in-focus exhibition in the Treasures Gallery explores the Library’s holdings of Shmith’s fashion photography from the 1950s to the 1970s. It features 20 large, gelatin silver photographs and five contact sheets.

The large prints sample Shmith’s range as a photographer, from experimental to expert in creating a classically elegant image. Shmith is reputed to have directed every aspect of a shoot and each photograph is deliberately composed. The prints are sparsely annotated and did not come with information about why or when they were taken, making identification difficult. Annotations on the reverse of several photographs, however, suggest that some of the prints were hung in his office. The collection may be what Shmith retained of his fashion work, for his own records. Shmith visited the Library in 1979 and identified many of the models, most of whom—Prue Acton, Anne Hamilton, Janice Wakely, Fiona Baroness Thyssen, Georgia Gold—were well known and also modelled for Shmith’s contemporaries.

The fashions he worked with are varied, from dresses inspired by Dior’s New Look, which took the world by storm in 1947, to ensembles evoking sultry late 1960s sensibilities. There is both movement and stillness in the photographs. In some, Shmith captures bursts of energy; others are quiet essays on beauty. Models pose in a range of locations: a shop window, a front garden, a front step and a building site, in addition to the studio. Characteristic Shmith motifs also appear: a double bass as a prop and a composition’s diagonal axis.

Explore Shmith’s world of elegance at the Library until 16 July 2017.  

Susannah Helman is Curatorial Manager in the National Library of Australia’s Exhibitions branch.